Mindful Simplicity: Decluttering, Cleaning & Leaving No Trace

By Leo Babauta

Our home isn’t as clean and sparse as a Zen temple, but when I see the clutter and dust of other people’s homes, it reminds me of how far we’ve come.

This is not a judgment on others, nor a proclamation of how great we are at cleaning and decluttering, but a reminder of what I’ve learned.

Cleaning and decluttering, for me, are mindfulness practices. They are not chores that I dread, nor ways to strive for a perfect living environment, but ways to practice living in the present moment. As such, they are some of my favorite things to do.

I wipe a counter with a rag, but I’m not doing it thinking, “This kitchen is so dirty!” (judgment) or “I wish people would clean up after themselves!” (expecting things to be different) or “I have a lot of work to do today” (future thinking) or “My son really got on my nerves when he said that this morning” (dwelling on the past). Or at least, when I do think these things, I notice them, and return to the wiping.

As I wipe the counter, I notice the crumbs and dried spilled liquid. I feel the rag going over the bumpy surface of the counter, and gradually feel the surface smoothing out. I feel the tension in my shoulders and jaw, and relax them. I become aware of my breath as it comes in and goes out. I rinse the rag out carefully, cleaning it and watching the dirty water run down the drain.

This is practice for a mindful life. It is also life, already, not practice but the actual event. Wiping things down, mindfully, is just as full of wonder as any other moment in my life.

I do the same as I wash dishes, declutter my closet or shelf, wipe down the sink or toilet, sweep. Each moment I spend doing these things is joyful wonder, and I am grateful for the moment I’m in.

The Principles

In the next section, I’m going to present a list of guidelines, but they’re just a bunch of specific things that help remind me of the general principles. The most important things are the general principles, which I try to remember:

1. When you clean, just clean. Don’t plan, don’t have your mind on the next task as you’re doing the current task, don’t listen to a podcast or watch TV as you’re doing the task at hand. Just wipe. Just sweep. Just declutter. Just wash, just rinse.

2. Do your work with gratitude and compassion. Before you start, remember to be grateful for what you have, for being able to clean or declutter. Be grateful for the people you have in your life, and remember why you’re grateful for them. Then remember you’re cleaning out of compassion: for the people in your life, so that their day might be a bit better for having a clean counter or sink, for yourself, so that you might have a nice uncluttered space in which to read a good book. This is your intention, and it will help you remember to be mindful.

3. Pay attention to your thoughts, body, actions. Practice focusing your attention: on the rag, on the broom, on the dust. But also notice your thoughts: are you thinking about other things? Are you judging others? Are you wishing things were different? Are you angry? Don’t banish the thoughts, but notice them. Then return to the cleaning. Notice too as you clean your body, and your breathing. Notice everything about the moment, immerse yourself in the moment.

4. Leave no trace. This, of course, is a philosophy of those who use the outdoors — to have a minimal impact on the land, to leave only footprints and take only pictures. But what about in our homes and workplaces? These aren’t quite as natural as a lake or mountain, perhaps, but they are our habitats. We must live here, often with loved ones, and so we should be mindful of the impact we’re having on this habitat. Leave no trace means that you don’t leave a mess, that you dispose of your waste properly, that you are respectful of other people in your space.

The Guidelines

With the above general principles, I’ve started creating a list of guidelines. These are not rules, but guideposts against which you can check yourself, to help you pay close attention to what you’re doing.

I should note that I learned a lot of this from FlyLady, the gracious and mindful staff at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and from Dogen’s Instructions for the Tenzo.

  1. Wash your bowl when you’re done with it. All other dishes too, of course.
  2. Clean as you go. If you’re chopping vegetables, clean up the cutting board and knife when you’re done, and put food scraps in the compost. Don’t pile things on the counters or in the sink.
  3. Have a place for everything. If something doesn’t have a place, designate one. Put things back in their place when you’re done.
  4. Start decluttering where you are. Overwhelmed by all that you need to declutter? Start right where you are, and pick a few things that you don’t need or use, and put them in a bag or box to be donated or recycled. You’ve now started. Tomorrow, do it again.
  5. Wipe your sink. Have the sink clean when you’re done with it. If it’s dirty, scrub it. There shouldn’t be dishes in the sink.
  6. Wipe the counters and stove. When you’re done preparing food, wipe things down. It just takes a minute.
  7. If a floor is dirty, take a minute to sweep it mindfully. It’s a nice break in your day.
  8. Handle knives with care.
  9. Swish the toilet bowl. Have a toilet brush near the toilet, and if you notice it even a little dirty after you use it, take the brush and give the bowl a quick swish and flush.
  10. Keep rags and scrubbers handy. I keep a scrub sponge in my bathroom to wipe down the toilet or shower when they get a little dirty. It only takes a minute, and having the scrubber there means I have no reason not to do it.
  11. Keep flat surfaces clear. My desk has nothing on it but my laptop and a photo of my wife. Counters and tabletops are clear. Floors have only furniture and rugs. These are not places for storing a bunch of junk. If you notice cluttered flat surfaces, clear them, one at a time. Get rid of the items, or give them a home.
  12. Take care of your tools as if they were your own eyes.
  13. Be gentle with those around you.
  14. You are already there. This is not a set of ideals to aspire to, a standard of perfection to achieve. This is a mindfulness practice, and if you are cleaning or decluttering mindfully, you have already arrived.